As thousands of mistranslations and misinterpretations throughout history have shown, translating does not mean replacing one word for another. Those who have read a good and a bad translation of a classic book can also confirm this. Translating is an art and requires specific knowledge, not only of the source and target languages, but also of cultural nuances, dialects, customs and points of view, among other elements.
Besides expert command of grammatical and semantic issues, what other aspects define a good translator?
A multi-skilled job
In order to fill pre-determined roles and work in certain organizations, depending on their mother tongue, translators must meet certain requirements. For example, at the United Nations, they are required to have “perfect command” of a relevant official language of that international body:
“Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish translators must possess excellent knowledge of at least two other official languages. English translators must possess excellent knowledge of at least two other official languages as described by the relevant United Nations competition, one of which must be French. Chinese translators must possess excellent knowledge of English; knowledge of one additional official language is desirable.”
In any event, beyond specific requirements, the truth is that a good translator can be identified through certain basic characteristics. “Translation contains different mental activities, such as language, thinking, problem solving, memorization, conceptualization, learning, information processing, perception, comprehension, re-expression, etc., which makes translation a complex phenomenon,” notes Fadime Çoban of the Department of Translation Studies at Sakarya University in Turkey.
About 1% of fiction and poetry books sold in the U.S. are translations of foreign authors. In 2019, 572 new translated fiction and poetry books were published in this country. Source: ShareAmerica
Translation consists of many different skills beyond learning to be a translator, and if any one of them is missing, deficiencies in the process are inevitable. Susann Herold summarized the competencies of a good translator into four main categories: meta-competencies, content-related competencies, hermeneutical competencies and translation action competencies.
Within these categories, Herold identified general cognitive, problem-solving, strategic, social, critical, communicative and learning competencies; special subject areas, linguistic, cultural, quality control, professional and technical content-related competencies; and also transfer, research, textual and even service competencies as the components of the professional translator’s “package” of competencies.
“Beyond knowledge and skill, excellent translators have a passion for language, insisting on making the text sound as perfect as possible. In practice, searching for a single term can easily take 30 minutes.” Source: Stephen Rifkind / International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI)
Although there are multiple models that have been developed to define translator competencies, here we can share the one proposed by linguist Don Kiraly, who specializes in translator training:
● Social competencies: these include etiquette, teamwork and negotiation.
● Personal competencies: incorporates autonomy, readiness for lifelong learning, quality control and professional responsibility.
● Translation competence: linguistic and cultural skills, textual typology, norms and conventions, terminology, world knowledge, strategies, technology and research.
Thus, the skills of a good translator must be considered in an integral and complementary manner. A highly qualified professional is one who demonstrates, on the one hand, pragmatic, sociolinguistic, textual and grammatical skills in both languages; and, on the other hand, extra-linguistic, bi-cultural, encyclopedic and contextual skills. They must also have a good memory, creativity, problem-solving skills and motivation. And since the context is constantly changing, these experts must always be open to learning and incorporating skills.